There are multiple reasons why I shouldn’t like Avengers Arena.
Let’s nail the biggest offender right out of the gate.
The concept comes across like a pure, unadulterated marketing ploy. A way to have a Battle Royale / Hunger Games tie-in within the Marvel Universe: classic X-Men foil Arcade kidnaps sixteen teen superheroes — including former headliners Darkhawk and X-23, as well as various members of Avengers Academy and the Runaways — and places them one of his deathtrap-laden Murderworlds, with the caveat that if they can survive thirty days, one of them can leave alive.
If Murderworld itself doesn’t get them, they’ll have to eliminate one another.
And that’s where writer Dennis Hopeless started to win me over, ten pages into Arena #1, by flat-out acknowledging the impossible-to-ignore elephant in the room within the story itself.
Cheeky. I like that.
Another glaring problem is that the whole book is premeditated around the fact that the reader actually cares for these characters, whether they live or die, and while I know who Darkhawk and X-23 are (I’ve never read a single issue of their respective solo outings, though), outside of Nico and Chase from Runaways, I pretty much have no clue who the rest of the cast is.
So, to a point, it really shouldn’t make much of an emotional impact to me whether or not they get wiped from the face of the Marvel Universe.
I can’t imagine I’m the only reader coming in blind, which puts Hopeless in the situation where he’ll need to balance getting us to know and care about these teens while still fulfilling the central point of the series — namely, dramatically killing them off as pawns in Arcade’s twisted, maniacal game.
Dennis addresses that in Arena #2, devoting the bulk of the issue to introducing many of the characters, particularly Death Locket, a.k.a. Rebecca Ryder, daughter of the cyberneticist who will eventually create the Deathlok technology. Rebecca gets caught up in a clumsy time travel assassination attempt against her father and is mortally wounded, only to be brought back from the brink by her father’s experimental tech.
Moments after regaining consciousness, SHIELD agents burst into Ryder’s lab and take Ryder into custody, and no one really seems to understand exactly what Rebecca is at this point, how much of her is a young girl and how much is a Deathlok killing machine.
Oh, and by the close of the issue, despite all the character development, Hopeless still manages to up the death count by one, leaving fourteen standing.
After just one issue, I really like Death Locket already. This is the closest thing to a classic one issue origin story that I’ve seen in ages.
I really appreciate the corner Dennis has intentionally placed himself in, to see if he can write himself back out of: the guy’s got guts. He’s overseeing a book that many people are going to dismiss or judge just based on surface details, and some of these characters have a fanbase that will be screaming for his head on a pike as the stories play out and the protagonists perish.
Avengers Arena is essentially a unlimited, ongoing series that is going to have to build, at some point, to a final climax. Thanks to a flash-forward that opens the series in the first pages of Arena #1, we know the contest will last until Day 29, and that Hazmat and X-23 will be two of the last combatants.
Dennis has to bet that readers are going to latch onto this series and keep it afloat long enough for him to tell his story with the proper gravitas. The series really can’t end without some sort of resolution, even if it is a suddenly accelerated, kludged-together one precipitated by low sales and the cancellation of the book.
If that happens, the overall context of the book is just going to be overwhelmingly negative, that he just wiped out a number of characters for no good reason beyond perhaps shock value.
But if the first two issues are any indication, if Hopeless has the time and space to really dig in and let this story unfold, it could be a real contender.
What I’m looking forward to is the spotlight cast on Arcade himself. He’s a very interesting antagonist that has been around for decades, yet never really developed as a character to any great degree. Despite dozens of appearances over the past 30+ years, he’s still one of the more mysterious denziens of the Marvel Universe, with very little defined backstory.
And, as Arcade notes himself in Arena #1:
Arcade wants to take a spot with the A-lister baddies, and this seems like the perfect way to repair his reputation — not to mention earn the ire of the entire adult Marvel superhuman community, who are finally going to see him as either a serious threat, or a mad dog that needs to be put down once and for all. That alone could bring up a very interesting denouement, if that’s the way Hopeless intends the dice to fall.
The events of this story are almost certainly going to have lasting repercussions for the survivors, any and all of whom may stagger away feeling victimized or suffer long-lasting trauma. This is, essentially, a good chunk of the next generation of superheroes, and unlike previous ones, they’re growing up in a world that is much more dangerous than the occasional Skrull invasion or visit by Galactus.
To my knowledge, Avengers Arena is the first time I’ve been exposed to Dennis Hopeless’ work, and he’s now popped on my radar in a big way. I can’t say I’m familiar with artist Kev Walker, either, but there’s some fantastic visuals on display here, rounded out by equally impressive colors by Frank Martin. Marvel’s editorial staff should be patting themselves on the back — this is yet another rock-solid creative team coming out of Marvel Now!
Avengers Arena is a very intriguing experiment on both Marvel’s and Dennis Hopeless’ behalf, although he’s going to be the one held responsible for this more than anyone, whether it succeeds or fails.
There’s actually more to lose here than to gain — while most of the cast comes from books that were deemed commercially unsuccessful, these characters still have their fanbase, and no one likes to see a favorite character die, regardless of their popularity.
Actually, it’s worse when it’s a relative unknown, because we all know the big guns will never stay dead for long, but more obscure characters might actually stay on the other side of the Marvel mortuary revolving door for quite some time.
(Although, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to take everything at face value here: this is Arcade, and there’s definitely something going on here that doesn’t add up, particularly his sudden manifestation of powers where previously he was just a normal human. I wouldn’t rule it out that this Murderworld is actually some sort of Matrix-like virtual reality construct, and that the kids are all lying plugged into a machine somewhere, giving Arcade an ace-in-the-hole if he needs to use them as a bargaining chip to escape retribution from the adult heroes, should they unexpectedly interfere.)
This brings me to the final point of why I shouldn’t like Avengers Arena: the last thing we really need is another grim and gritty violent superhero comic, especially one involving teen characters.
It’s going to take a deft and steady hand to keep this from just being shock value / controversy for sales’ sake, and it seems, at least so far, like Dennis is up to the task. Even though thematically and conceptually it borrows, begs, and flat-out pickpockets, this is a very unique set-up for a Marvel book and I think it’ll be interesting to see it play out.
Provocative ideas are one thing, masterful execution of the same is another, and while it may still be too early to pass judgement on that, Avengers Arena is off to a really strong start toward that goal.
Art and images from Avengers Arena #1-2 by Kev Walker and Frank Martin, ©2013 Marvel Entertainment
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain! If we’re ever kidnapped, sent to some remote island, fitted with explosive collars, and forced to appear in some televised deathmatch, I promise we’ll have a truce and work together to take the other players out.
Unless there’s coffee to be had, in which case it’s every man for himself and I might accidentally roll a grenade into your sleeping bag. Not proud of it, but I have a huge dark-roasted monkey on my back.